April 15, 1889
On this day, Thomas Hart Benton, a Western artist mostly by accident, was born in Neosho, Missouri.
Called America’s “art anthropologist,” his massive murals depict the nation’s history with both grandeur and blemishes, a controversial candidate for inclusion in a list of Western painters. His giant mural, “Independence and the Opening of the West” has been called the“greatest tour de force in the field of history painting: literally thousands of objects…”assembled into an organized composition.”
Detail of “Independence and the Opening of the West”
Completed in 1961, it took the artist four years to research. Benton began a cross-country odyssey from Oklahoma through Nebraska and Colorado in search of his frontier models. In an effort to faithfully recreate the scenes familiar to those on the Sante Fe and Oregon Trails, he traveled countless miles on foot to find the perfect vantage points for places like Bent’s Fort, Spanish Peaks and Chimney Rock.
Despite his roots in Missouri, Benton’s credentials as a Westerner were at best, tenuous. His single connection to the frontier was as a distant nephew of his namesake, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, one of the 19th century’s most powerful legislators. The Senator was largely responsible for the celebrity of his famous son-in-law, explorer John C. Fremont. (Above)
His father, Maecenas Eason Benton, (right) himself a four-term U.S. Congressman, tried to turn his son into a politician. The closest young Benton ever came was a short stint as a political cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper. His mother, however, championed his desire to be a painter.
After two years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he moved to Paris and studied at the Adaemie Julian. Returning to New York in 1912, he decried “modernism” and advocated for “Regionalism.”
Despite his criticism of the modern art movement, he mentored Jackson Pollock, (left) one of the country’s most original abstract impressionists. A luckless soul with troubled past, Pollock joined Benton’s studio at the Art Students League of New York. The older artist provided a stabilizing father figure as his teacher. They were, however, different sides of the same coin, both rebels at heart.
But Benton seemed unable to escape his ties to the Midwest. In 1932 he was tapped to paint scenes of Indiana life for the Century of Progress Exhibition, held in Chicago the following year. Of course, it was destined to cause controversy.
Some believed his depiction of portions of the state’s history were best left forgotten. Negative reviews from critics centered on his inclusion of Ku Klux Klan figures in robes and hoods. Benton argued in his own defense, shameful as it was, in 1924, Indiana’s governor was a Klan member along with 30 percent of the state’s male population, sufficient to warrant historic notice.
The art scene continued to pummel him for his “folksy style,” a non-starter, they said, for the New York and Paris elite. It won him a commission to produce the murals for the Missouri State Capitol, however, another project that gave his critics heartburn.
“Outlaw” detail for Missouri Capitol mural
This time it was inclusion of the state’s outlaw past i.e. Jessie James, its slave history and the controversial political figure, Tom Pengergast. (Left) It angered a number of the state’s most powerful leaders, including the Missourian who would be President, Harry S. Truman. Today the Capitol murals are considered some of his finest work.
Finally settling in Kansas City, he taught at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 until 1941. Once again creating controversy, he was dismissed from his position over remarks disparaging the influence of gay artists in the art world, calling them a “third sex.”
A growing reputation as a firebrand didn’t seem to slow down his career. He continued to paint monumental works for some of the Midwest’s most venerable institutions, including Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, The River Club in Kansas City and, surprisingly given their history, the Truman Library. His commission for the library eventually led to a close friendship with the former president.
“Sources of Country Music” in Nashville
Coming out of retirement to paint “Sources of Country Music” for Nashville’s Country Music Hall, he died of a heart attack in his studio on January 19, 1975, before the mural was completed. He was 85. Benton’s wife of 53 years, Italian immigrant, Rita Piacenza, outlived her husband by only 11 weeks.
Benton was an appropriate choice for the music hall mural. Immersed in Missouri’s mountain music, he was, in fact, an accomplished harmonica musician. In addition, Benton’s son, Tomas Piacenza, known in the music world as TP, performed with the “American Chamber Music Group” on an album for Decca Records and went on to be the first chair flutist with the Orlando (Florida) Sympathy. (Above, Rita, T.P. at 10, and Tom)
The mid-century rise of the impressionism Thomas Hart Benton despised but also inspired eventually eclipsed the regional style. His elevation of the heartland and its people, however, turned out to be one of his most enduring contributions.
The Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site, 3616 Belleview, Kansas City, was established in 1977 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Victorian era stone house and studio, home of the artist until 1975, contains 24 rooms and studio in a converted carriage house.
The site is managed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Open 10 to 4 Monday and Thursday through Saturday, and 11 to 4 Sunday, closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Tour fees are $5 for adults, $3.50 for children 6 to 12, under 6 are free. For more information go to mostateparks.com and click on Thomas Hart Benton Home, or call (816) 931-5722.
The Harry S. Truman Library, 500 W. U.S. Highway 24, Independence, Missouri closed in the summer of 2019 for renovation and is expected to reopen in the summer of 2020. For information on the reopening, call 816-268-8200, toll-free 1-800-833-1225, fax (816) 268-8296 or e-mail: email@example.com.
In accordance with CDC guidelines, the Benton State Historic Site is temporarily closed. Visit the Missouri State Parks website for current information.
© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.